drawing by Canadian artist Pierre Surtes, from my own collection
(this is NOT the image in the poster I refer to below, which seemingly exists now only in my memory)
When I was seventeen, my gf brought me a poster that showed a little girl standing at the ocean’s edge and staring out, her arms outspread. The words beneath the photo read: “Stand still and look until you really see.”
At seventeen, I didn’t get it. Perhaps I still don’t. But somehow I “know” there’s something important there.
I’ve always fallen in love with women way smarter, more aware, more grounded than I can ever hope to be.
I’m flush from a series of discussions and exchanges with, and readings from, some extremely bright people, and I feel suddenly blessed to have more such people in my life than ever before. I’ve so often felt starved for intellectual stimulation, but that may be mainly because I’ve never paid close attention when it’s actually all around me, and instead I keep waiting for it to knock on my door. I’m lazy that way.
So a little thank you to all those who have corresponded with me recently, and exposed me to new ideas, new possibilities, new ways of thinking and feeling and being. Thank you for reminding me to breathe, to slow down, to smile, to notice, to keep things in perspective, to pay attention, to make eye contact, and to give things time, even when time seems inexorably to be running out.
The message of the poster is perhaps a different way of relaying the message of radical non-duality that I’ve so taken to heart in recent years. Except that of course radical non-duality asserts that no amount of looking, or standing still, will enable “you” to see because “you” are precisely what’s in the way of seeing. A little joke from the universe.
I am starting to sense that the turmoil of what is seemingly going on all around us, with slowly-accelerating violence and chaos, is precisely what civilizational collapse, the “long emergency”, looks like. And that terrible, wonderful realization is coming precisely when it’s also dawning on me, as I’ve somehow always known, and as every wild creature keeps quietly telling me, that none of what I imagine is real, and everything already just is, perfectly, the way it is, the only way it could possibly be. And that the anguish I feel is because I’m too full of my self, and as such cannot hope to really see, to accept, to let go, to just be, in wonder. I know to my activist friends that sounds like an irresponsible cop-out, but, well…
I knew all this as a small child, and there have been glimpses since, but most of the time I’ve forgotten, and keep forgetting. And I understand that it’s hopeless and that when this is remembered, there will be no one here remembering. And that it doesn’t matter; things only really matter to our beleaguered, exhausted, deluded selves. But this incessant noisy mattering of everything still seems to be happening here, sadly.
Some writers are now starting to write about the current period as the traumacene. The horrific overpopulation of humans, the vast chasm of inequality, and the disconnected, frenzied lifestyles we have come to live, have created massive artificial scarcities and made most of us endlessly stressed. Compounding that, we now live in an age of unprecedented dependence, where so much that we need relies on ‘efficient’ global transportation and centralized, automated production and distribution systems, and on the cheap energy needed to produce and sustain them. It is an age of precarity, and of endless unspoken dread as to when everything will run out, knowing that that time is coming soon, and that we long ago lost the capacities and skills needed to live independently and sufficiently.
And we have been programmed and conditioned to be anxious, furious, and guilt-ridden about this, to want to blame someone, everyone, and ourselves for how the dice have rolled since our well-meaning civilization began. Or to deny it. And then to somehow fix it, make it the way in our foolish dreams we thought it might be, or once was. Somehow we know that none of these feelings make sense, and that none of these urgently-sought outcomes are even remotely possible. But knowing that can’t make us feel any better about it.
I first started writing poetry about waiting when I was seventeen. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but somehow I “knew” that that was what was required, and that in the meantime everything was just an act, make-believe, faking it, unimportant. Putting in time.
For most of the fifty-two years since, I forgot I was waiting; I forgot that that was what was necessary. In that forgetting, the ‘me’ that keeps asserting its existence, its validity, has been mostly and variously impatient, angry, ambitious, depressed, outraged, discouraged, saddened, terrified, anxious. About a reality that is nothing more than a fiction, an invented world conjured up in my brain. It’s a form of mental illness that I think almost all ‘selves’ suffer from.
Wild creatures, even when they age and become more wary, seem to have no need for such nonsense. They don’t imagine unreal things and happenings into self-vexing existence. They have never forgotten what is real.
There’s a wonderful story in scientist-poet Loren Eiseley’s book The Star Thrower about the utterly different perspective wild creatures have, and occasionally give us a glimpse of. Here’s an abridged version the story:
I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. …
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. … I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.
But, I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home. …
For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish.
In forgetting what is hidden behind the veil of self, we’ve forgotten how to play. Young foxes (and old corvids) play to learn, to develop skills, and to practice. But true play is never serious, or even consciously purposeful. Wild creatures play because it’s fun. The benefits are incidental.
In real play there are no winners and losers, no keeping score. Only in humans’ world of artificial scarcity is play a zero-sum game. The ideas of “healthy” competition, of dog-eat-dog, and of interaction being mostly about dominance and submission are, I think, a myth, a foolish anthropocentric misunderstanding.
Competition is actually IMO a traumatic response to scarcity. Its only evolutionary purpose is to “thin the crowd” when natural means of population management have been exhausted and the population is severely stressed. Otherwise there is no need for it. And while some birds and other animals may seem to be vying for mating rights, or for what we (I think incorrectly) call “status”, I would argue that this is no more “competitive” than the game Loren played with the young fox.
These seeming “competitions” (the word competition etymologically means “striving together”) are I believe the means animal tribes use to determine and communicate roles in the community. There is no hierarchy, only collective agreement on who in the tribe is best at doing what.
A part of that, it seems, is acknowledging who actually wants which role. There have been studies that show that the “central” male and female in a wild community (what we anthropomorphically call “alphas” or “top dogs”) are not necessarily the largest or strongest, but rather those most eager and able to fill the often-exhausting key protector and reproducer roles. Don’t want the job, don’t apply.
What would a human society look like without competition? I think this can only be imagined in a post-collapse culture, one without crowding or scarcity of resources. My sense is that it would be a society full of art and music, as that is one way humans play — as a means of expression, not just a means of learning important skills and staying fit. Humans aren’t alone in that — some bird species mimic, collect and display bright shiny objects, and sing quietly to themselves at night when they’re alone.
As our incompetent human civilization gears up and spins out, there is less and less time for art. Our current mania for work leaves no bandwidth, no space for creativity, no time for wonder. There are many constraints that actually stimulate creative ideas, but a lack of time is not one of them.
To live effectively and comfortably in a world without competition and scarcity, which is the world our species lived in for its first million years, where all that was needed was within easy reach from our warm treetop perches, we would first have to unlearn all the terrible knowledge we have been conditioned to accept and believe.
That’s why I think our re-emergence into such a world will have to await civilization’s collapse. In the 21st century the only way we know to live is the constant struggle to have enough, to have more, to survive. The only thing we have learned to believe is that our deprivation and stress and unhappiness has a purpose — motivating us to “create the better world we know is possible” or some similar nonsense. We have to keep denying that our few millennia of trying to run this little blue laboratory has been an unmitigated disaster, and that the sooner it ends, the better.
But it’s fine. We’ve always done our best, and will continue to do so until Gaia gets tired of the experiment and re-sets. She will take as long as is needed to clean up the mess. Humans, it turned out, weren’t very good at playing well with others, but that’s OK. There are many other creatures that are, and they will have their turn.
The problem with waiting is that there isn’t actually any such thing as time. It’s just a metaphor, a mental invention, a way for humans to make sense of what actually makes no sense, and has no need to. The universe has no need for time; everything is always fine just as it is.
Our species that has turned all play into competition will never understand. We’ve forgotten that real play has no consequences. And there is ‘no time’ to relearn all that we’ve forgotten.
So those of us waiting — for liberation from our selves, for salvation by some gods or super-humans, for a better world for our children, for the end of suffering, for Godot — are waiting, hopelessly, in non-existent time, for things to be other than how they are, the only way they can possibly, already, eternally, be. A madman’s folly.
Still, we have no choice. We can only laugh. We can only try to play, even though we’ve forgotten how. We can — still — only stand still, and look, until we really see, what has always been, right before our veiled eyes. What we can never see, until we’re gone.